Pierre S. du Pont was born in 1870 in a DuPont Company house overlooking the Brandywine Creek just north of Wilmington, Delaware. His early years were influenced by the area’s natural beauty and by the du Pont family’s long tradition of gardening. But not even Pierre himself could have predicted that he would someday become one of the country’s most influential gardeners.
While traveling, he was also exposed to a wide variety of garden settings, including Horticultural Hall at the 1876 Centennial, England’s Sydenham Crystal Palace, the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew and the flora of South America, the Caribbean, Florida, California and Hawaii. Visits to Italian villas and French châteaux focused on the architectural qualities and water effects of those gardens.
At the age of 36, Pierre bought the Peirce farm and soon began creating what would become Longwood Gardens. He followed no grand plan; rather, he built the gardens piecemeal, beginning with the “old-fashioned” Flower Garden Walk. His later gardens would draw heavily on Italian and French forms.
It didn’t take Pierre long before he started making his mark on what he called Longwood. The name came from the nearby Longwood Meeting House, which in turn was named for a neighboring Longwood Farm. “Longwood” probably derives from a nearby stretch of forest known locally as The Long Woods.
Ten years after purchasing Longwood, Pierre du Pont was just getting warmed up. By 1916 he was contemplating grand indoor facilities “designed to exploit the sentiments and ideas associated with plants and flowers in a large way.” The result was the stunning Conservatory, a perpetual Eden that opened in 1921. The latest technology was used to heat, water, and power the complex, but the systems were hidden in tunnels so as not to detract from the grandeur of the glass-covered peristyle and surrounding rooms.
From 1925 to 1927, Pierre constructed a Water Garden in a low-lying, marshy site northeast of Longwood’s Large Lake. The inspiration was the Villa Gamberaia, near Florence, Italy. The original did not have many fountains, but Longwood’s version had 600 jets in nine separate displays that shot from six blue-tiled pools and 12 pedestal basins.
In 1929-30, Pierre constructed Longwood’s 61-foot-tall stone Chimes Tower based on a similar structure he had seen in France. In 1956, the original chimes were replaced with a 32-note electronic carillon. In 2000, a new 62-bell carillon was crafted in The Netherlands.
One of the highlights of Pierre’s final years was the 150th anniversary of the du Pont’s arrival in the United States, held at Longwood Gardens in 1950 with 632 family members from around the world in attendance. In 1954, just three days after being awarded the Cravate de Commandeur of the French Legion of Honor, Pierre died from a ruptured aorta. He was 84 years old.
But nothing compares to the growth of Longwood’s Christmas Display. In the early 1960s, the display included a modest 1,000 poinsettias indoors and a small Christmas Tree Lane in the parking lot. Attendance soared as more features were added and by 1984 there were 81 trees outdoors with 60,000 lights. Today, as many as 300,000 guests enjoy an extravaganza of 400,000 lights, 200 concerts, dancing fountains, and superb floral displays – just the sort of spectacle that Pierre du Pont loved.
In 1999, the state-of-the-art Production Greenhouse Facility opened, making it easier to produce exquisite plants year round under all conditions.
Today, a fine dining restaurant will welcome you as well as a cafe and a picnic area. The shop is very interesting.